Is Cancer Finally on the Ropes?

Is Cancer Finally on the Ropes?

Hope for vaccines increase—but your lifestyle choices are still essential to lowering cancer risk.

When it comes to defeating cancer, the numbers are improving, but we have a way to go:

  • In 1990, 33.3 people out of every 100,000 in the US population died from breast cancer. By 2015, it was down to 20.3 people. And as much of an improvement as that is, in 2018, about 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. And about 63,960 new cases of very early stage, non-invasive carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be diagnosed.
  • In 1990, 33.8 people out of every 100,000 in the US population died from prostate cancer. In 2015, it was 19.8 people. Again, great strides were made in managing the disease. But in 2018, there will be about 164,690 new cases diagnosed.

Those statistics make us feel two things at once: First, survivorship is growing. Breast and prostate cancer are considered chronic conditions these days. But second: How is it possible that we can explore Mars and we can’t figure out how to stop cancer from starting or how to genuinely cure it?

Great strides, good news
Well, in research centers across the country, “The Immune System Rover,” much like the Mars Rover, has been launched. And it’s at work diligently surveying the human immune system, studying prototypes in lab animals and teasing out individual biological systems and pathways to find out why cancer cells are allowed to proliferate. That research has revealed just how a person’s own immune system’s warriors can be awakened to defeat cancer.

As a result we now have a vaccine against HPV that prevents cancer of the cervix, vagina, penis and throat, and one against hepatitis B that prevents liver cancer.

We also have the beginnings of vaccines that KO cancer even after it appears. There’s an approved treatment vaccine, Provenge, for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. Others against breast and ovarian cancer, as well as low-grade B-Cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have seen positive results in study participants.

How do other cancer vaccines work?
Well, in one newly reported trial for a targeted, individualized breast cancer vaccine, the doctors used a patient’s own immune system attack cells to win the war. They did genetic testing on the woman’s tumor and found about 300 mutations. Then they selected her immune system’s tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) that were “interested in those mutations,” meaning that they wanted to attack them. The scientists then grew 81 billion of those T-cells and infused them back into the participant, along with some interleukin-2. Voila—tumors shrunk and 22 months later the patient remains free and clear. The same approach to identifying mutations has been tried and seems effective against colon and liver cancer.

Other promising approaches involve leaving the TILs inside the tumor and goosing them so they wake up, proliferate and kill the tumor from the inside out. That’s in contrast to the forms of vaccines that grow billions of TILs in the lab and infuse them back into the patient.

Where does that leave you?
If you’re diagnosed with treatment-resistant cancer, talk to your oncologist about exploring clinical trials. Look for a complete listing of trials at

And know that lifestyle choices make a huge difference in preventing cancer and in helping your body to fight it off. Did you know that around 75 percent of the risk of colorectal cancer is thought to be related to your food choices? Or that 86 percent of the risk of skin cancer is from sun exposure? And 75 percent of cases of head and neck cancers are from smoking tobacco and excessive alcohol intake?

So put your own Immune Rover to work by ditching highly processed foods and red and processed meats. Opt for seven to nine servings daily of produce. And move it or lose it—at least one hour, three times weekly for aerobic conditioning, and two 20- to 30-minute strength-building sessions weekly!

Medically reviewed in September 2019.

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